Accommodating customers with physical disabilities is smart business

Unless you’ve experienced a physical disability, it’s hard to understand the complexities of getting around independently in the world today.  Until you’ve faced a flight of stairs without the use of your legs or tried to read a menu without sight, it’s hard to empathize with those who face these daunting realities every day.  

Smart business owners, however, will take extra steps to accommodate as many prospective customers as possible, whatever those customers’ abilities.  While it can be financially impossible to anticipate and prepare for all the possibilities, some accommodations are actually required by law.

Federal Law: Access

Physical accessibility rules generally fall under Title III of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.  Title III covers public accommodations (e.g., hotels, restaurants, retail stores, libraries), commercial facilities (office buildings, warehouses, factories) and private agencies that offer certain exams and courses for educational or occupational certification. 

Title III requires these covered entities to make reasonable modifications to facilities or policies to accommodate people with disabilities, do so in an integrated setting and ensure accessibility.  (The ADA refers to the latter as removal of physical barriers if it is “readily achievable.”) It also requires businesses to provide alternative communication options.  That means the menu issue may be resolved either by providing the menu in braille or training servers to read it to people with vision challenges.

Title III does allow exceptions for instances where accommodations would require fundamental alteration to the nature of the goods or services, and it does not require businesses to provide personal or individually prescribed devices, such as wheelchairs or hearing aids.

Additionally, only commercial facilities constructed subsequent to January 1993 when Title III became law are required to fully conform to accessibility guidelines.  It’s important to note those guidelines shifted again in March 2012, building on what’s been learned in the years since Title III took effect.

For buildings constructed prior to 1993 that were grandfathered into the new approach, they are still expected to remove physical barriers when doing so is “readily achievable,” a standard determined on a case-by-case basis.

Wisconsin Law: Fair Treatment

To ensure fair treatment of people with disabilities, Wisconsin also has the Wisconsin Public Accommodations and Amusements Law.  It applies to lodging, restaurants, hospitals and clinics, beauty salons, any place where accommodations, amusements, goods or services are available.  This law states it is illegal “to deny service or to give unequal treatment in service because of sex, race, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.”

That means an insurance company, for example, cannot refuse to provide or charge a higher rate for auto insurance to someone with a disability.  And a hotel cannot refuse service to someone because he or she requires the aid of a guide dog. 

It’s important for businesses to understand and be familiar with laws pertaining to services for people with disabilities.  Penalties for violating Wisconsin’s Public Accommodations and Amusements Law range from $100 to $1,000 for a first offense to as much as $100,000 for repeat violations.  For violating ADA laws, civil penalties can cost up to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for any subsequent violation.

Once you understand the laws and how they affect your enterprise, be sure to incorporate appropriate steps into your policy and procedures manual.  You’ll find the preemptive action builds good will and probably your customer base, too.  Doing all that while also managing risk is smart business.

For more information on disabilities law in Wisconsin, contact Ellen M. Frantz at 608-784-5678.


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